A Picturehouse Blog by director Lucy Walker
As a filmmaker there’s nothing I love more than audiences – and there’s nothing I’m more scared of. Audiences are brutal. The minute – no, the nanosecond – something doesn’t hold their attention, the moment they are bored or confused or saw something coming or see something out of place, they will hold it against you like you’ve mugged them.
How many films get warmly reviewed in any year? A handful – out of thousands. The rest are criticised at best, as if it’s easy to find, figure out, write, cast, find funding for, shoot and finish a fabulous, unique, fascinating, important, beautiful film. Audiences want perfection, even though this script, this team, this idea, this location, this story, this everything has never been tried and tested before, and is only being so now under the most intense of conflicting, furious pressures.
I sometimes contrast filmmaking with the art world, or with video art – if you call it art instead of film, you’ve no obligation to transport someone rapturously from the first frame to last. You can create a twelve-hour installation of strobing frames and it can be declared a triumph. Try putting that on in a cinema and watch what happens on rottentomatoes.com. Film is tough.
As a filmmaker, and as a viewer, I want nothing more than to connect with the pleasure and payoff of a brilliant story well told. That’s why I’m so proud of my films if they win audience awards, because the audiences have ranked them as their most beloved. I was so delighted when Variety singled me out as a director of documentaries that connect with audiences.
THE CRASH REEL has won audiences awards across the world, from South By Southwest to Melbourne. I can tell you exactly the work that went into that. One trick is to show a film to a test audience every week during the editing period – which with a doc can be much longer than with a fiction film, because you don’t start out with a script. Some filmmakers are snobby about test audiences and would rather listen to roads being drilled than to test-audience feedback. I’m the opposite. I want to find out while there’s still a chance to fix it when they’re getting bored, whether they are understanding something, what they want more of, or less of, or are confused by. It never fails to amaze me how much you can do to respond to that feedback. Films can progress in the editing room from dreadful to decent to good to great to world-class, but many filmmakers stop that journey too soon, before the film has reached its full potential.
Feedback is particularly helpful when you’re making a documentary, because you already know so much about the story and the people and the footage, and you’ve seen it a hundred times over in the editing room. You need to show it to fresh eyes. I’ll never forget when Pedro Kos (who edited WASTE LAND and THE CRASH REEL with me) and I were editing the unbelievably emotional climax of WASTE LAND. We were fiddling with frames and music edits when we suddenly heard a terrible noise behind us. We turned around to see the assistant, Nour – who hadn’t seen the footage before – racked with sobs, mascara all down her face. Ok, we thought, that scene is starting to work then!
It’s seriously challenging crafting a strong narrative with clean story beats and emotional moments out of real life, which is messy, incoherent, and unstructured. And that’s when you actually manage to get it into the can in the first place. Sometimes you’ve only captured a scene partially, or you don’t know what people are talking about, or a key line is inaudible, or it’s just plain boring (the vast majority of moments in life will never make riveting documentary scenes). The first rule is to only pick the most scintillating, un-turn-away-from-able subjects and characters. If there’s any question about whether you should make the film, don’t: it isn’t sufficiently interesting. Only embark on a film when the subject sucks you in so personally and irresistibly that you’re happy to set aside everything else in life to find out what happens, and to make it the most cinematic film you can find. And only work with people that will let you in, that will let you shoot everything and can share their experience honestly – as the Pearce family did in THE CRASH REEL.
I’m obsessed with craft. I trained first as a fiction filmmaker, and have the same ambition to create full-on cinematic delight when I make a non-fiction film. In fact real-life stories, if you apply sufficient craft, can be even more compelling, in my view, than fiction, because they are really happening to real people that you care about. I’m so thrilled that in my generation we have high-quality, affordable, portable cameras and media storage and non-linear editing so we can shoot reams of raw documentary material and be able to work it elaborately in the editing room. That’s why we are currently seeing a golden age of documentary films.
I fight the misconception that documentaries can’t have dazzling cinematography, gorgeous music, perfect editing – as I hope THE CRASH REEL proves! I’m so proud that we managed with our little team of friends to turn 19 terabytes of raw footage into a movie that’s as wonderful an emotional ride as a fiction film, that sucks you in and is just as satisfying.
I recently saw RUSH and loved it. It’s strikingly similar to THE CRASH REEL in some ways: an intense sports rivalry drama, with an injury twist and an unexpectedly positive ending. And ok, call me biased, but I have to say that ultimately I much prefer THE CRASH REEL. Real life and extraordinary characters in combination with ambitious filmmaking are a magical, arresting combination, and that’s what I strive for in all my films. I really hope you love the result.